What to Read Next (No. 135): 4 history books to help make sense of 2020
When the world around me seems crazy, I turn to my bookshelves. There are inevitably moments from history that can provide parallels to the current moment and help us see that what’s happening isn’t completely new. Reading history can often provide some sense of optimism that the world and our nation has been through this type of crisis and upheaval before.
I’ve already written about two of these books, but this week I specifically relate them to what’s happening here in 2020. There are also two additional books that I’ve just recently finished. Let’s get to it.
P.S. I know I’ve been heavy on history the last few weeks; next week I’ll tell you about the great new zombie thriller I just finished.
I didn’t go into this book expecting to see much resemblance to our modern society and political situation, but the comparisons were impossible to ignore. In the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton, we see the frenzy of the republic’s early years.
It’s easy to think of our nation’s founders as a group of tight-knit brothers who, in spite of a few squabbles, mostly got along and hammered out a democratic infrastructure. The reality, however, is that there were two factions that viciously fought to see their specific vision of government enacted. The Federalists, led by Washington and Hamilton, wanted a strong central government and an economy fueled by commerce and manufacturing. The Republicans, led by Jefferson and Madison, rallied for states’ rights — meaning a weaker federal system — and an agrarian society.
The two sides fiercely lambasted each other in the unabashedly partisan newspapers of the day; even Washington himself, hero of the Revolution, wasn’t spared harsh criticism. “Fake news” existed well before the 2016 election cycle.
When you think that politics today is more hostile and partisan than ever, remember that Aaron Burr, the Vice President of the United States, shot and killed the nation’s first Treasury Secretary. Read that last sentence again. While our modern way of life is obviously far removed from that of almost 250 years ago, even then it was a shocking, unconscionable act. While Burr never ended up being tried for the murder, he was charged on numerous criminal counts, and his life was never the same. From then on his reputation was that of a callous murderer.
Chernow’s doorstopping biography features biased media, sensational sex scandals, financial conflicts of interest, a revolving door of a cabinet, fiery debates about presidential vs. congressional powers, intensely bitter partisan name-calling, a main character with a “touchy ego” . . . sound familiar? As Chernow writes near the start of the book, “we are indisputably the heirs to Hamilton’s America.”
Our country’s past has almost always been just as messy and dramatic as where we find ourselves today. Don’t buy in to anyone trying to tell you that right now is as divided as our nation has ever been. (Don’t forget about that Civil War, either.)
If You’re Wondering What the Spanish Flu Was Like, Read Pale Rider by Laura Spinney
At the root of every pandemic is an encounter between a disease-causing microorganism and a human being. But that encounter, along with the events that lead up to it and the events that ensue from it, is shaped by numerous other events taking place at the same time . . . It is a social phenomenon as much as it is a biological one; it cannot be separated from its historical, geographical and cultural context.
As I wrote a few weeks ago, the literature on the Spanish flu is surprisingly sparse. For comparison, World War II is by far the most written about event of the 21st century, producing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of excellent books. The Spanish flu killed nearly as many people, if not more (WWII claimed 85 million lives), and yet there aren’t all that many books to choose from. Before our current pandemic hit, it wasn’t much part of our collective memory of the last century. That has obviously changed now, and I imagine the Spanish flu will get more historical attention here in the next couple decades.
Spanning the globe, Spinney relays not only the epidemiology of a pandemic, but more importantly, the anxiety, the political discord, the scientific confusion, and the lasting effects of what happened a hundred years ago. Naturally, there were a number of terms that I wouldn’t have known before, but now had full cognizance of: “novel coronavirus,” “social distancing,” and “epidemic curve” (“You can think of the area under the epidemic curve as reflecting the total amount of misery that it incurs”).
No matter your politics, you probably think that the American response to what’s happening now is uniquely splintered and political. But it was somewhat similar in 1918. In as large a nation as the United States, “the collective may have competing priorities” and “the rights of the individuals risk getting trampled on.” Spinney notes that:
democracy was unhelpful in a pandemic. The demands of national security, a thriving economy and public health are rarely aligned, and elected representatives defending the first two undermine the third, simply by doing their job.
Rings a bell doesn’t it?
If You Need a Primer on the Civil Rights Movement, Read The King Years by Taylor Branch
In this slim distillation of Branch’s massive trilogy on the Civil Rights Movement, the renowned author aims to share “the gist of the patriotic struggle in which the civil rights pioneers, like modern Founders, moved an inherited world of hierarchy and subjugation toward common citizenship.” As is expected in an abridgment, there’s some context missing and the short chapters feel somewhat clipped, but The King Years is hard to beat as a primer on how the triumphs of that movement came to be.
For my own understanding of that time period, this book was an important read in a couple ways.
First, it helped me realize just how unpopular the Civil Rights Movement was at the time. Upwards of 60% of Americans disapproved of the numerous, near-constant protests, speeches, and “dramatics.” Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., though revered in our modern age, were two of most hated public figures of the era. Today, for comparison, the Black Lives Matter movement has public support that’s the inverse of 50 years ago, with over 60% of people in favor of the principles behind it.
Second, given the short chapters that focus on pivotal moments, years go by with the turn of a page. The reader realizes just how long and drawn out the fight for civil rights really was. The Montgomery bus boycott was in 1956 and the Civil Rights Act wasn’t passed until 1964, with the Voting Rights Act following on its heels in 1965. It was nearly a decade of struggle and social change for our nation — in the midst of the Cold War and a presidential assassination. The ‘60s were intense, man.
In light of the passing of John Lewis, who makes numerous appearances in the book, this volume is especially worth reading. (As is the entire trilogy, though at over 2,300 pages, it does require some endurance.) More than the other books featured in this article, it provides hope for what could be. As Branch concludes:
Above all, the King years should serve as a bracing reminder that citizens and leaders can work miracles together despite every hardship, against great odds.
To Get a Grasp of Cancel Culture, Read The Cultural Revolution by Frank Dikotter
Thanks to endless campaigns of thought reform, many individuals learned how to parrot the party line in public but keep their thoughts to themselves. . . . some people developed two minds or two souls, one for public view, the other strictly private, to be shared with trusted friends and family only.
Along with social unrest and a global pandemic, 2020 has also seen the apex of “cancel culture.” Old monuments are being torn down, celebrities are losing status as their misdeeds of the past come to light, and people everywhere are in the midst of a “re-education” regarding what’s okay to say and think and what isn’t.
It’s a theme that’s easily recognized in Frank Dikotter’s The Cultural Revolution, which is the final volume in a trilogy about China during Mao Zedong’s life and rule. To be clear at the outset, this particular historical comparison isn’t as well-aligned as the others, but it does bear thinking about.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Mao Zedong embarked on a decade-long project called the Cultural Revolution — a time period in which the Chairman sought to not only purge any capitalist movement in the country, but also conform society to a single “correct” ideology about Communism.
Mao recruited young people, known as the Red Guard, to tear down old monuments, enact “endless campaigns of thought reform,” and most importantly, punish wrong thinking. There was to be no free speech, no room for disagreement with Mao, no privacy at all — the Cultural Revolution “attacked the very notion of privacy.”
Without a doubt, the tearing down of Confederate monuments is vastly different than a dictator tearing down religious landmarks. And our modern widespread effort to make folks more aware of systemic racism is fundamentally a very good thing, whereas Mao’s attempt to indoctrinate society with his own book of wisdom was as narcissistic and malicious as can be imagined.
But, the idea of policing how people think, and then punishing those people when their thinking goes astray of what’s “right,” makes for a dangerous precedent. The ominous repercussions of that type of society are worth exploring in Dikotter’s study of China.
That’s it for me this week. Let me know what you’re reading and thank you for the time and inbox space!